Barack Obama constructing campaign calls in 2012. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/ AP
Over the course of a night’s work, you would hear dozens of people say slight fluctuations on the same phrase, or make a virtually identical argument about the same topic. When your switching was finally done, you would go home and wearily turn on the news or click through some blogs and discover which pundit had supplied the hot take du jour. And then days later, something else would come up and the circuit of sophistry would replenish itself anew.
There were, however, some reliable leitmotifs in the calls. Everybody only loved Obama, and they were quite proud of having voted for him, as if that in itself proved something about their leftist credentials. Voting is very nice, and no doubt nearly as effective a route to feel like you are advancing the common good as speechifying on a telemarketing bellow, but what really matters is organizing the vote in many complex and geographically huge countries. It is tedious, painstaking, necessary work that culminates in the drama of election night, but it was in the service of merely this elusive majoritarian alliance on the left that I had signed up for the telemarketing game in the first place.
Still, this particular vision of politics was remote from the prime concerns of most of the people I called; they were too busy gnashing their teeth over the pundit-scripted version of national politics to bother with the mundanities of field work or putting together a durable network of activists and funders. In some styles, this was zombie thinking at its formalist zenith- never underestimate the tendency of the middle class’s need to be a herd of independent minds.
Over time, the whole endeavour started to feel hopeless. As much cash as I had happily raised for him during his first run for the presidency, after a while I couldn’t shake the feeling that Obama’s centrist, hopey-changey agenda was faltering precisely because of its vast, vague but very electable scope. You simply can’t be all things to all people, even if the people themselves expect you to be. Few know this fallacy better than the harried factotum hunched over a phone.
The more fund people gave, the worse the bellyaching get. I noticed a few resulting callers who, asked for their secret, shrugged and said they just recurred whatever the donor said back to them in a tone of total validation. The endlessly more disheartening variation on this customer-empowerment refrain was the oft-cited injunction ” don’t talk about the issues !” When all else failed, you could always only trash the Republicans. That usually worked fine as a start, but the hazy nebula of Democratic policy still hung in the air like a big bubble about to pop.
To some extent, the gap between expectation and performance is simply the style of the political world; you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. As frustrated as I was with the Obama administration in power, I didn’t blame Obama as much as I did the people who had jumped on his bandwagon when it was the brightest, shiniest one in town, and then spent the next eight years complaining that the hope and change they had ordered wasn’t being delivered fast enough. I wanted desperately for the party to give me something to work with, but no matter how many Jimmy Stewart speeches I gave, and I certainly gave my share, I guess it only felt safer or more comfortable for most people to be against something rather than for something.
People like to think of themselves as politically engaged without ever bothering to truck with the messy business of politics itself. People want “politics”( opinion, notions, invective) without politics( organisation, compromise, subtlety ). Someone else, that ever-elusive ” they ” is supposed to solve the country’s problems and do it in a way that will satisfy everyone without causing offense, demanding sacrifices, or increasing taxes. My time fundraising has constructed me cynical about the pronouncements of pollsters and the general hypothesis about the float of the political gusts. People will say they agree with or believe in any number of things on paper, but in daily life it’s a whole different story. People most enjoy supporting candidates and issues when they don’t have to be personally responsible for them.
I thank my lucky stars that I got out when I did, in the summer before the apocalypse. If I had been working the phones during the final months of the 2016 general elections, I would probably be scrawling all of this on the walls of my padded cell. Still, cranky as I am, I find that I can’t fully regret the time I’ve expend participating in some small route in the manic political life of my country. I had plenty of thought-provoking, sometimes moving and hilarious conversations with some very interesting people. I had plenty of time to read and write and consider the ideas I absorbed in light of their real-world application. It is one thing to theorise about politics, but it’s another to do it while constantly taking the anxious pulsation of the people.
After so many evenings coping with the painful narcissism of the middle-class liberal, I find that I am more interested in revolutionary critiques than ever before. I have logged enough long hours supporting Democratic causes to feel something more than merely sentimental attachment to the Democrats and their motley agenda. It was on their behalf, after all, that I spent so many years creating truckloads of money and enduring a veritable tsunami of aggrieved complaints. But now I also know quite well how far they need to go to represent a person like me.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the current issue of the Baffler
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